Despite what TV shows like CSI would have us believe, a lot of lab work tends to be highly monotonous. It’s the type of work that could be assigned to robots, were it not for the fact that many facilities can’t afford the things, or can’t rationalize bringing one in for a single project. When scientists at Cambridge University were recently faced with a very mindless, repetitive task that was part of their research into creating artificial bone, one of them got creative, and built a couple of robots out of LEGO.
Department of Engineering lecturer Michelle Oyen is leading a team that is looking at ways of creating bone in the lab, primarily for use in medical implants, but possibly also as a building material – bone has a very good strength-to-weight ratio. Their current bone-making process involves taking a base object (such as a bolt), dipping it in a dish of calcium and protein, rinsing it with water, and then dipping it in a dish of phosphate and protein. This routine is repeated many times, for each sample.
Given how boring it would be for a lab technician to have to do that for hours at a time, Mechanical Engineering PhD student Daniel Strange proceeded to construct two bolt-dipping robots out of off-the-shelf LEGO MINDSTORMS pieces. The robots now work throughout the night, to produce bits of artificial bone that are ready by the next morning.
MINDSTORMS is quite definitely not the LEGO that many of us might remember from our childhoods. According to Strange, he used the NXT-G graphical programming language that comes with the kit, for programming his robots. The product also includes multiples sensors, servo motors, and is Bluetooth-capable. When I was a kid, I thought it was pretty good that my LEGO included wheels.
More details on the Cambridge robots are available in the video below, which was produced to inspire entrants in the Google Science Fair 2012 contest – the LEGO company is a partner in the competition.